What Churchill Knew

What Churchill Knew

What Churchill Knew

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Oct. 7 1998 6:32 PM

What Churchill Knew

Conquering troops swagger into towns, round up members of an undesirable ethnic population, and systematically slaughter them. The world knows all about it but dithers anyway. Not for years after they first learn of the pattern of atrocities do they do anything about it. Sound familiar? We're not talking Kosovo or Bosnia here. We're talking about the war which taught the Serbs just how much horror an occupier can get away with.

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One of the many unpleasant duties of Holocaust historians involves rounding out the portrait of Allied indifference to the genocide of the Jews during World War II. Richard Breitman, a historian at American University, has just added some new details to that picture. In his book, Official Secrets: What The Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew (Hill and Wang), he argues that the British were made fully aware of the Nazi plan to wipe out the Jews as early as January 1942--half a year earlier than previously thought.

Breitman's argument, based on recently declassified British intelligence documents, goes as follows: As early as 1939, British decoders unscrambled radio signals from German special police units. Messages intercepted from the Eastern Front in September 1941 showed that these units were following behind the army and rounding up vast numbers of Jews in the Soviet Union. The decoders knew something about Nazi terminology by then, so they understood that "special duties" or "pacification" meant something much worse than relocation. They'd also heard enough to know that it was a campaign planned before the invasion of the Soviet Union, not some random by-product of war. This intelligence rose all the way up to British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, who quashed it, and Winston Churchill, who enfolded it in grandiose speeches about mass execution that didn't quite explain what was occurring.

What difference would this information have made? The difference the confirmation of rumor always makes. Had the world known for certain that the incredible stories coming from the Soviet Union were true, more Jews could have been warned. Neutral and satellite states could have been pressured to accept more refugees, years sooner. Even after the war, the British intelligence reports could have helped pin the blame on the right people. During the Nuremberg trials, for instance, prosecutors misclassified the special police units largely responsible for the slaughter on the Eastern Front as run-of-the-mill policemen, rather than as the mass murderers they were. The future mass murderers of the world surely drew the obvious moral lesson.

--Kate Galbraith and Judith Shulevitz